Evolving as an author takes intense focus on detail, serious attention to flow, and a knack to carry characters across that threshold from two-dimensional to three. We spend hours weaving plot, describing scenery, and creating remarkable hooks and cliff hangers. However, one of the most important parts of a story, frequently overlooked, is dialogue.
I belong to two critique groups. One is online, and as a result, the members have extended time to edit pieces. They are vicious in a familial kind of way, as if saying "this spanking hurts me more than it hurts you." I adore them, and can easily claim that their bloodletting over the years has done my writing some fabulous good. Like looking back at high school English and realizing that sour-faced, ruler-whacking honors teacher actually knew her stuff.
My other critique group is face-to-face, where the author reads aloud ten, double-spaced pages as the crowd takes notes. Afterward, the group addresses weaknesses and strengths in a round-table discussion. While I can say my first group is more advanced, there's something about the oral presentation of the second that has helped me with dialogue. All because I have to read it aloud, emulating the characters.
I can honestly say the best and worst comments I've received about my fiction were about dialogue.
The Worst: "You try to tell too much story through your dialogue."
The Best: "I can tell who each character is without having a tag, because your players are so individualistic in how they speak."
I'm a sucker for excellent dialogue. When an author paints a story through characters' words, I'm drawn like a bug down a storm drain into the story. I'm of the mind that the character needs to tell the scene more than the author. I'm also from the school that dialogue should be so distinct that a tag is inserted purely for beat, because the reader already knows who's speaking.
In Lowcountry Bribe, Carolina Slade is a county agricultural manager dealing with farmers who struggle to pay their loans. A particular farmer, Jesse Rawlings, becomes the focus of the book. In this scene, Jesse arrives at the office with his brother Ren, again unable to make his payment.
Jesse loosened Ren's grip on me with a tender tug and handed him a peppermint. "It's okay, buddy." Ren exchanged a grip on me for the candy.
Jesse turned back and spoke flat and cool. "Sorry, Ms. Slade. Come on outside. Got somethin' to show you."
"Somethin' to show you," echoed Ren.
"We can talk here," I said.
"Please, ma'am. Need you to see my truck. Might help you understand."
Jesse speaks in elementary language to his simple brother, rarely more than four or five words at a time. Distinct. However, when conducting business with Slade, he resorts to country talk, dropping nouns and forgetting his "g"s. Slade speaks in complete sentences, an educated lady. Ren, of course, mimes his older brother.
However, when Jesse takes Slade outside to his truck and offers the bribe, his sentence structure cleans up, flaunting a keener mind behind the good old boy persona.
Jesse drew me by my stretched sleeve to the truck bed, my face barely a foot from the nearest body. "There's ten thousand dollars in it for you," he whispered, draping his arm around my shoulders. "If you find a way to get me the Williams farm. We can iron out the details later . . . in private." He winked and clicked his tongue. "If you know what I mean."
Online classes and workshop speakers instruct us to :
== Avoid dialogue modifiers like exclaimed, retorted, shouted, and cried.
== Avoid over-mentioning names.
== Avoid wordiness. Simplify and get to the point.
== Avoid repetition. "Yes, me too" or "We agree with Tom when he said..."
== Avoid using dialogue to insert backstory.
== Avoid long passages. Break up dialogue with narrative, or "beats."
== Avoid overdoing dialect. A little goes a long way.
These are mechanical lessons. The most important aspect of dialogue, however, is personality. When you face various races, ages, intellects and social backgrounds, the task of differentiating characters isn't hard. But in a scene full of all white, Southern men from the same community, how do you discern the voices? Or all Mexican grandmothers at a funeral? Or all black children on a playground? Actions, clothing, height, and weight are fine, but the most memorable is often the dialogue.
Go sit incognito in an environment where the people are much the same. A fast food restaurant at six AM when construction crews are grabbing breakfast. A college cafeteria. Senior day on Wednesday at the grocery store. The waiting room at the veterinarian's office. Close your eyes and listen to what they have in common, and how they differ.
Catch the inflections, dropped consonants, contractions or no contractions. The condescension or intimation. Subtleties speak volumes.
Who tends to drop their voice at the end of a sentence, or always finish with a question mark? Who forgets their verbs or sprinkles the occasional "um" and "er" in their phrasing?
A lawman in a mystery might speak distinctly, with no wasted words, so that in a circle of men, his conversation is recognizable. A bureaucrat may talk around a subject, and an older brother might sound self-assured. A teacher will speak differently to one student versus another.
Develop an uncanny ear for the double entendre. Use metaphors. Develop a unique rhythm per character. Play-act and read aloud for credibility.
Talk brings a story to life. A reader should look forward to the speaking parts, much like a movie where a narrator stops and the actors take center stage. Dialogue propels a story forward, but we don't want to hear it in black and white. We expect the chit-chat to be in Technicolor as well as the rest of the show.
C. Hope Clark is founder of FundsforWriters.com , chosen by Writer's Digest Magazine for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past eleven years. Her newsletters of advice and resources for serious writers seeking an income from their toil, reach 43,000 readers each week. www.fundsforwriters.com
Hope is also author of Lowcountry Bribe, A Carolina Slade Mystery, from Bell Bridge Books, February 2012. Set in rural South Carolina, protagonist Carolina Slade faces crime in rural America, in stories the average urban dweller would never comprehend. Available via Amazon, B&N, on Kindle and Kobo, and through the publisher, www.bellbridgebooks.com. Learn more at www.chopeclark.com
Hope is a member of Sisters in Crime, South Carolina Writing Workshop, and MENSA. She speaks around the country at numerous writers' conferences. When she's not writing, however, she's living the rural life on the banks of Lake Murray in central South Carolina along with her gardens, chickens, and three lovely roosters. She composes her tales from her back porch beside her husband, a thirty-year federal agent, overlooking the water, bourbon in hand just like Slade.